|Jeb Bush converted to Catholicism
Last week David Brat upset Eric Cantor in the Republican primary race for a seat in the 7th congressional district. At the time I was really struck by the fact that Brat attended Hope College, a Reformed Church of America liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan and Princeton Theological Seminary, a fairly conservative (at least by the standards of the Presbyterian Church–USA) training ground for Presbyterian ministers. Somewhere along the way Brat converted to Catholicism and the economic principles of Ayn Rand, making him the latest poster-boy for conservative Catholics and Tea Party libertarians.
Brat is just one example of a growing number of GOP politicians who have connections to both evangelicalism and Catholicism. These include Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush. Writing at the Religion News Service, Sarah Pulliam-Bailey explores the powerful role that these so-called “evangelical Catholics” are playing in the Republican Party. Here is a taste:
The newfound Catholic appeal among the GOP can be seen in the number of high-profile conversions to Rome. Jeb Bush, who comes from a classic blue-blood Episcopal family dynasty, converted to Roman Catholicism years ago. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was raised Hindu but converted to Catholicism. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback converted to Catholicism, but his wife and family still attend evangelical churches. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was a Southern Baptist for most of his life, converted to his third wife’s Roman Catholicism in 2009.
More than 50 years after John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism stirred fears that he would be more loyal to the pope than to the people, Catholicism isn’t nearly the political liability it once was.
“Growing up, the fact that someone was Catholic would give someone pause,” said veteran GOP strategist Ralph Reed, whose “Road to Majority” conference this week will feature a keynote address from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Catholic. “Now, there are a lot of evangelicals who greatly admired Pope John Paul II and some would look to Pope Francis for leadership.”
What changed? For one, leading Catholics and evangelicals decided they could do more together than working against each other. Twenty years ago, former Nixon aide Charles Colson and the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the ecumenical magazine First Things, started the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the cross-pollination it promoted is having practical effects.
“The alliance forged in the trenches between evangelical Protestants and faithful Catholics in the struggle to defend human life and marriage has blossomed into much greater than a mere marriage of convenience,” said Princeton University’s Robert P. George, the de facto leader of the Catholic intellectual political movement. “What has emerged is a spiritual fellowship that I think was not anticipated at the beginning by anybody.”
Catholics have a lot to learn from evangelicals, George said, pointing to a book by George Weigel, another Catholic intellectual heavyweight at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, arguing for a more evangelical Catholicism.
The Neuhaus-Colson alliance has indeed had a major impact on the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party. But this is not the only evangelical-Catholic dialogue that has taken place in the last couple of decades. Evangelicals of a more moderate persuasion met with Catholic moderates between 2008 and 2013 for the purpose of finding points of common ground, particularly as they relate to the defense of life, the environment, immigration, and the promotion of social justice. The meetings have been called “Catholic and Evangelicals for the Common Good.”
The evangelical side of this conversation has been led by Ronald Sider of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Catholic side of the conversation has been led by John Borelli, a theologian who serves as Special Assistant to the President at Georgetown University. Other participants included Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Timothy Shah, E.J. Dionne, Michael Gerson, Glenn Stassen, Kathleen Caveny, Richard Cizik, Shirley Mullen, David Neff, Vincent Rougeau, Leslie Tenter, Cheryl Sanders, Samuel Rodriguez, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, Brian McGraw, Don Eberly, John DeGoia, and Galen Carey. Georgetown has hosted most of these meetings.
I joined this dialogue a few years ago–right about the time it was winding down. The final product of these conversations will be a book edited by Borelli and Sider. I wrote a piece on the history of evangelical political engagement for this volume, but I have not heard too much of late about the publication schedule of that book.
I wrote about my participation at one of these Georgetown meetings in a series of posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. You can read those posts here.
In the end, it does not seem like the Georgetown conversations have had the same impact on the culture of the Democratic Party or American politics generally in the way that the Neuhaus-Colson conversations have influenced the GOP.